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Charles Levens: Te Deum / Laplenie, Ensemble Sagittarius

Levens / Ensemble Sagittarius / Laplenie
Release Date: 04/09/2013 
Label:  Hortus   Catalog #: 960   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Charles Levens
Conductor:  Michel Laplénie
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ensemble SagittariusOrchestre Baroque Les PassionsEnsemble Baroque Orfeo Et Groupe Vocal Arpège
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

LEVENS Te Deum . Deus Noster Refugium Michel Lapléne, cond; Ens Baroque Orfeo et Groupe Vocale Arpège; Les Passions Baroque O; Ens Sagittarius (period instruments) HORTUS 960 (67:29 Text and Translation)

Probably few have heard of Charles Levens (1689-1764), a contemporary of Jean-Philippe Rameau. Originally from Marseilles, he was educated in Brittany and spent his career in Toulouse and Bordeaux. His main claim to fame was as a sort Read more of rival of Rameau, publishing a well-respected treatise on harmony in 1743 (based upon Rameau). His music was performed frequently throughout France, including at court, but as it was mainly sacred, it fell out of fashion by the time of the Revolution.

There was one exception, however, the present Te Deum, a rather quirky piece in the grand style of Jean-Baptiste Lully. As the excellent booklet notes state, it was frequently performed beginning in 1722, when it was probably composed for the coronation of Louis XV, up through 1789, when it seemed a rather ironic plea for peace during the Revolution. It is certainly a long work of the ancien régime , with 12 sections divided out, sometimes into lengthy movements. The contrasting use of the oboes and strings in the opening, for instance, is reminiscent of Henry Purcell in the flowing set of variations for the oboes and voice (and chorus when it finally enters) above an ostinato bass. There is a certain sense of grandeur in the choral movements, such as the “Aeterna fac cum Sanctis,” which sound almost as if they ought to have been in a Lully motet, though when the texture thins at the entrance of soloists, one is transported into a world of Handelian simplicity. The plaintive “Dignare Domine” opens with a lament above a set of slowly marching strings. The tenor voice enters some time later with softer suspensions, and then the countertenor responds with nicely dissonant harmonies, and when the bass voice finally appears, all three form a languid, richly-textured sound that has moments that would not be out of place in Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater of a decade later. The soft lyricism and gentle flow reflect an acute sense of emotion, a feeling that seems somehow strange to the notion of the powerful hymn of praise. The final “In te Domine speravi” is a rather Handelian fugue, replete with an extended homophonic episode right in the middle, before the final stretto. The other work on the disc, Deus noster refugium , opens with a stylized dance, with contrasts between the woodwinds and strings, as well as the usual heavy ornamentation and dotted rhythm. Indeed, the introduction is so long that one might even consider it more of an overture than a vocal quartet (which it eventually becomes following a long hautcontre section). The “Propterea” for three basses, has some rather striking Vivaldian passages where the voices require considerable dexterity to negotiate the often skirling lines. These weave in and out of each other as the basso continuo moves along at a breakneck pace. This has to be one of the best baroque vocal trios written, something I believe Handel would have given his eye teeth to have composed. The following movement opens with an ostinato figure running simply up the scale until the entrance of the homophonic chorus. It maintains the same frenetic tempo and motion, which links both of these movements together in a breathless pace. Levens returns to his courtly origins in the remaining movements, the final one of which is a sedate chaconne.

The early instrument group led by Michel Lapléine is nicely sonorous. The tempos are quick but not rushed, and the playing of each instrument clear and present. One even hears the serpent in the bass on occasion, particularly in the final fanfares of the “Dominus virtutum” of the Deus noster . The chorus seems to be a combination of two groups, both of which work well in ensemble. The sound they produce is resonant and full. Of the soloists, all are up to the job, but the three basses in the aforementioned trio are especially good with their tortuous lines in the “Propterea.” Soprano Sophie Landy has a nice if not entirely resonant voice, but her partner, Sophie Pattey, can sound a bit shrill at times, no doubt the result of their vibrato-less style of performance. Both Sébastien Obrecht and Marcos Loureiro de Sà can sometimes be a bit indistinct with their diction, and sometimes there is a lightness to their voices that may be the result of the microphone placement, rather than anything having to do with their performance.

Levens is not exactly a major figure, with only one other disc currently available, of his Mass for the Dead from 2007, performed by Sagittarius as well. I confess not to have heard it, but I will probably acquire it after having heard this one. The work may not elevate Levens to the rank of Rameau, but both performance and the works themselves indicate that he was capable of sensitive and well-constructed music, and moreover with a few extraordinary moments. For anyone interested in the high French Baroque post-Lully, this ought to be in your collection. Highly recommended.

FANFARE: Bertil van Boer
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Works on This Recording

Te Deum by Charles Levens
Conductor:  Michel Laplénie
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ensemble Sagittarius,  Orchestre Baroque Les Passions,  Ensemble Baroque Orfeo Et Groupe Vocal Arpège
Written: 1722; France 
Deus Noster Refugium by Charles Levens
Conductor:  Michel Laplénie
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ensemble Sagittarius,  Orchestre Baroque Les Passions,  Ensemble Baroque Orfeo Et Groupe Vocal Arpège

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